Ben Tover just requested to follow you on Instagram.
A refreshing pink notification icon, unlike the usual red tinder flame.
“It’s Ben from Tinder.” He continued typing. “So, you’re from Vietnam?”
I bit my lip. Should I give him the benefit of the doubt? I reminded myself that it was hard to know these things when you were naive. A lot of Aussies don’t travel so the concept of migration might still be mind-blowing.
“No. I grew up here but my parents are Vietnamese.” I couldn’t help but feel a slither of shame. Instantly, I was 15 again, responding “I am Australian,” when people asked my ethnicity.
“But where did you come from before?”
“Still Australia. But my parents are Vietnamese.”
“Ah, I see,” Ben wrote. “I saw the flag on your bio and thought maybe you were some patriot.”
My face flushed. I felt insulted. I was conflicted. Block him? Throw my phone at the wall? Type back in capital letters, “ARE YOU SOME KIND OF IDIOT?”
“No, quite the opposite actually hahaha I feel very disconnected from it. Trying to reconnect again,” I wrote calmly. My own white-pleasing complex horrified me. In the proximity of white people, I giggled constantly. I never disagreed. He started typing.
“Phew… not personally a fan of patriots.” Then a few seconds later, “keen to grab a drink?”
About an hour after I had put the Vietnamese flag in my Instagram bio, my mum texted me to take it down. “It’s sensitive, con,” she said. “A lot of people died under that flag, you might not be able to get back into the country with that on your profile.” I had gone to an Anglican school where I was one of about three Vietnamese. My culture was not something I was familiar with. I spent a lot of time suppressing it because I was ashamed. Only recently did I feel a restlessness to reconnect. I screenshotted my Mum’s text and forwarded it to my friend. “I can’t win,” I wrote. When I was young, I did not care enough, and now that I was trying to care I was being insensitive.
“Interesting,” my friend responded. “I never thought censorship would be an issue.”
As it turned out, Ben from Tinder was anti-patriotism but completely for Asian women. At a dimly lit bar, sitting in a leather booth on Enmore Road, he told me he moved to Hong Kong to model. His ex-girlfriend was from there.
“Where do you live now?” I asked.
“My ex chose that place. She’s into all that fancy shit. The family’s loaded.”
“She moved back from Hong Kong?”
“No, this was a different ex. She moved out with me from Chatswood.”
In his apartment, filled with guitars, devil’s ivy and monsteras, a record player and shelves of vintage film cameras, he showed me his collections: a $20,000 Leica M-A Film Camera, his Canon EOS R5, Nikon Z72, and an assembly of shiny lenses. Pinned to his fridge with silver magnets, were Polaroids.
“That’s my friend Weijie and her boyfriend Junchao. That’s my first ex. That’s my Hong Kong ex. That’s my other ex, and that’s my homie Scott. We skate together, and George, he also skates.”
Beside the Asian faces, Scott and George, bearing buzz-cuts, tattoos, oversized T-shirts and trousers that seemed to drag with them all the dirt, chewed gum, cigarette butts, and scrunched up Red-Deli Rock Chip packets of the pavement they had walked on. In his bedroom, Ben showed me his spine and shoulder tattoos, along with a secret: he was a sub. I blinked at him in the Muji diffuser light, the hard metal of his re-fillable vape digging into my neck.
“What?” I asked.
“Are you into that?”
“No,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m usually a switch because most girls are subs.”
It got better. Anti-patriotic Ben was not just into subs, but was a sub himself, because the subs he was into, were actually wild sex creatures 100% down to fuck. I was disgusted. I slept with him and woke up even more disgusted. He drove me home on his $15,000 motorbike and I made an excuse about needing to finish my law essay. I never saw him again.
At the end of that year, I booked a trip to Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, I saw my Bac Phuong who took me around the war memorial museums. She was 10 years older than my mum. She, along with half of my Mum’s 11 siblings, had remained in Vietnam. I asked Bac Phuong about our family’s history. She told me that my uncles had fought for the South in the Vietnam War. When Ho Chi Minh took over in 1975, my oldest uncle was arrested and sent to prison in a small village five hours from Hue. Ba Ngoai sold all her jewels. Ong Ngoai gathered all the cash from his Chinese Medicine practice. They sent my remaining two uncles to the coast to escape. You had to pay to be a refugee; contrary to popular Western opinion, nothing comes for free. For years, my grandparents did not hear from Bac Thieu or Theiu. They ate cold rice and clutched their prayer beads every night. Outside, the Vietnamese flag with the yellow star was strung up, as Saigon was declared ‘Ho Chi Minh City.’ South Vietnam soldiers continued to be arrested, their families punished. No one dared to utter an ill word against the Communist Party or their Uncle Ho; he had saved them from the United State’s horrible violation of human dignity, their bombing, their calling for war. Two years later, my grandparents received a call. My uncles had arrived safely in Melbourne and were living in a Refugee Centre in Flemington. They had found a factory job packing boxes of shampoo. Five years later, they would be sponsoring my mother, her sisters and my Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai to Australia.
“Mum told me to take the flag down,” I told Bac Phuong in the museum.
“Yes,” she muttered, her jade bangle dangling. “It’s sensitive. So much fighting under that flag,” she pushed her index fingers together in a line to resemble ‘fighting.’ “We are still sensitive about that.”
In the museums, we read wall after wall about Uncle Ho. Photographs of him with village children. Pictures of him living in Vietnam by boat to fight French colonialism, and discover a cure for the country’s misery. I looked at Bac Phuong and saw in her bubble-tea pearl eyes, her shame, thick and sugary. She tried to be proud. She had lived 65 years now in her country. Vietnam was still Communist. The men in our family had tried to write a different narrative for us, they did not succeed.
“Do you vote here?” I asked her.
“Yes, but we don’t really,” she whispered. “We put down what we think but the government decides.” She turned away, as if checking if anybody was listening. A group of British girls in hemp pants, lilac fanny packs, and shell anklets above their Birkenstocks passed by, holding pamphlets.
“Why did Bac Theiu fight for the south?”
“He didn’t have a choice. We lived here, in Saigon.”
Every time Bac Phuong referred to her hometown, she always said Saigon. She had not picked up on the new name of Ho Chi Minh City.
I cried that day in the museums. Looking at the photographs of all the people on the wall and seeing my features in them made me feel a horrifying kind of loneliness. I lived in a Western country my whole life as a minority and now I was finally a majority. People spoke to me in a language I understood. People smiled at me and instantly accepted me as one of them. I was everywhere, in the vermicelli noodle salads, in the chaotic streets, in the women carrying baskets of lychee and dragon fruit above their bony shoulders, fingers weaving coloured thread into canvas. I did not need to fight to see myself.
I arrived back in Sydney and removed the Vietnamese flag from my Instagram bio. Men and women died under that flag, which is still Communist. I, on the other hand, never had to fight. I could sit in front of a Coogee Beach sunset and enjoy a $20 Açai bowl. My Asian rendition of Eat, Pray, Love had a different outcome. I watched the sun turn syrupy in the sky and thought of the people before me who brought me here, and gave me this beach to sit on. I gave my thank you.